Genshin Impact developer miHoYo has a uniquely generous policy toward fan artists, and its explicit endorsement on Genshin Impact merch has created an incredibly vibrant art community.
On May 21, miHoYo released its Genshin Impact Overseas Fan-Made Merchandising Guide, which explicitly permits the commercial sale of fan-made items up to 200 units. There are only a few restrictions and artists do not have to contact the studio for small batches under the limit.
(Updated: 11/10/2021, 5:22 p.m. ET: As of 11/09/21, miHoYo has updated its merchandising rules to increase the upper limit of commercial merchandise sales to 500 units for individual creators. The rules also clarify that commercial novels or stories based on Genshin Impact do not need to be declared.)
The legal environment for fan art is so strained that conventions like NekoCon have limited the sale of non-official merch. Entertainment companies like FUNimation have explicitly stated in the past that creators at artist alleys, which are exhibition spaces at fan conventions where independent artists can sell unofficial merchandise, are “infringing Funimation’s copyright rights.” And it’s generally understood among artists that properties owned by companies like Disney are completely off-limits. Supergiant Games, in comparison, has a permissible policy for commercial fanworks, but its IPs are smaller in comparison.
The quasi-legal environment of artist alleys was the main way that fan merchandise was sold before the pandemic. But other routes, like Kickstarter, have been harder for merch makers to break into.
“There is an unspoken law. Artists alleys are gray areas; Kickstarters are not. You don’t put your stuff on Kickstarter,” the board game designer behind Genshin Tarot, professionally known as Brother Ming, says.
Genshin Impact isn’t the first video game to have a massive base of fans willing to create original keychains, phone charms, and pins for sale. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but independent artists have been selling commercial fan merchandise at comic conventions for at least a decade or more. Covid drove a significant amount of commerce to websites like Etsy, and artists have continued producing video game merchandise despite the logistical difficulties of a global pandemic.
An independent artist and game developer who goes by Olivinearc professionally told Kotaku that artists needed financial safety to create fan merchandise. Not every artist made enough money to justify the manufacturing costs. But Genshin Impact has a massive global fanbase, and the company has a different policy towards commercial fan products.
Compared to other companies that hold major IPs, miHoYo’s unique willingness to acknowledge fan creators and permit commercial sales of unofficial Genshin products was shocking for Ming.
“This is different...we can talk to miHoYo,” Ming says. “[Previously], they didn’t publically support [commercial fan artists], but they also weren’t doing anything to prevent us from making fan merch. So we knew there was a healthy attitude towards us. But then they were like, hey, just email us. And that was like: woah...we can do that?”
The studio’s open policy has made it possible for Genshin Impact fans to make more varied products than the prints, keychains, and charms that are typically sold at artist alleys. At the time of writing, a quick search on Kickstarter shows unofficial earrings, sweaters, bookbags, plush toys, and berets. And fans were willing to put money towards their enthusiasm. At the time of writing, there were 28 Genshin Impact Kickstarters with at least $10,000 in funding.
Ming didn’t expect an answerwhen he reached out to miHoYo about commercially producing Genshin Tarot. Two days later, he received a generic response: “Hey, thanks for letting us know.”
There are also numerous independent artists who advertise their fan-made items on Twitter. Olivinearc sells Genshin Impact merchandise in her online store, and despite only opening twice a year, she receives a couple hundred orders each time she opens. She uses the revenue to fund the development of her visual novel game, and she cites the revenue from unofficial Genshin Impact products as the reason she was able to expand its soundtrack.
“Genshin fandom is more willing to spend on physical goods because they’re already likely investing a lot of money in the game, and if they don’t use money, they instead invest more time. Which also creates an emotional investment.”
While miHoYo has always held fan art contests on social media, the studio directly endorses fan artists through its official creator’s program. Aside from special Discord privileges, the program also grants in-game currency to official content creators. Unlike the social media metrics that gaming companies commonly require for streamers, it seems that miHoYo’s content creator policy for artists is far more lenient.
Emnide, who runs an Etsy shop where they sell pins of the characters from Genshin Impact, is one of many artists in the content creator program.
“I just filled out the application, then the program moderators evaluated my work to decide if it was fit for the program. The program is accepting of small accounts as well, with many Content Creators having less than one hundred followers at the time they applied,” they said.
Using fan art for publicity isn’t without controversy. The studio previously came under professional criticism for holding a fan design contest that allowed for free distribution without proper compensation. Paying creators with real currency rather than gacha currency would be ideal, but the fine text doesn’t indicate that miHoYo owns the fan art produced under the program.
None of the creators seemed concerned that miHoYo would walk back on its commercial fanworks policy any time soon. Ming seemed especially optimistic.
“[The studio] understands having a very, very active fan community revolving around creators is the best way to keep that fan fandom engaged.” Ming told Kotaku. “Because players will talk to each other about gameplay and complain about balance. Creators are the ones who can drive engagement, and bring [Genshin Impact] to the forefront constantly.”